Give, give, give

But what? Check out our suggestions for holiday reciprocity

It's happened again. December has rolled around, and last year's promise not to buy gifts for anyone has melted into a familiar panic. "Just a few people," I thought — and those few quickly snowballed into a dozen, that dozen into many, that many into, well, the onset of a big ol' holiday freak-out. What the hell to buy for everyone? The thought of going to a mall gives me the all-overs. Too many people, too many shiny displays. Too many "it" items this year — though I must admit, this season is mild compared to past years of Tickle-Me-Elmos and Furbies. Furbies really freaked me out, man. At least there aren't any Furbies this year.
It's not that I'm a Scrooge. In fact, on a holiday scale from "Ho, ho, ho!" to "Bah humbug!" my seasonal sentiments rate a solid "Fa la la la la." I'm just oozing with holiday cheer — what I'm lacking is the cash to spread that cheer around.
Another major deterrent to the mother of all shopping seasons: people scare the hell out of me. Last year I almost lost an eyeball attempting to navigate around the umbrellaed masses of Union Square. There was barely a light drizzle, but the umbrellas were up, the people combative, and once I reached the safety of the Disney Store, there was another enemy force: children. Screaming, snot-nosed children. Sleep-deprived mothers trailing behind, trying to wrangle the ankle biters to the next shopping destination.
Is it worth all the stress? Not in my estimation. That's where good planning comes in. I have three rules. One: make every gift thoughtful, personal, and original. Two: stay the hell away from shopping centers, big-box stores, and those umbrella-wielding maniacs of Union Square. Three: spend as few of my hard-earned dollars as possible. I'm no expert on shopping, but I've made enough mistakes to know I'll need one hell of a strategy to pull off the perfect shopping caper. The plan? Divide and conquer. Get ’er done. Make it up.

Consider who the most important people on your list are. The people you love the most are always the most difficult to shop for. Get the important stuff out of the way early to minimize stress. Special people call for special circumstances — that's why shopping at smaller, local businesses is best. Your big brother might love that copy of Bob Dylan's Chronicles, but you can bet your ass he saw it on the Border's clearance shelf for $6.98.

Chances are most bosses have received more bad gifts from their underlings than they can fill their oversized offices with. Steer clear of tchotchkes and give the gift of booze. A good bottle of wine goes a long way. Try K and L Wine Merchants (638 Fourth St., SF; 415-437-7421, for a huge selection and a staff so helpful they could explain the nuances of a petite sirah to a donkey. Or try Coit Liquor (585 Columbus, SF; 415-986-4036, This San Francisco landmark looks like your basic bodega, but the corner haven offers one of the best selections of fine wines in the city.

If you have to buy for half the office, at least take comfort that these are the only people on your list who truly understand your financial woes. Think stocking-stuffer small. Think clever. Think original. Think Wishbone (601 Irving, SF; 415-242-5540, for all the odds and ends of your shopping this season. Everyone loves adorable useless bullshit.

Known affectionately among locals as "Oh — that store with all the skulls?" Martin's Emporium (3248 16th St., SF; 415-552-4631, also happens to have an obscenely large collection of antique jewelry. So if your honey has an itch for F. Scott Fitzgerald, get her all Gatsbyed up with some jazz age earrings, brooches, and pendants. Or pull a Clinton: find a signed or first edition of your lady's favorite book among the antique items at Thomas A.